Fleshing it Out

Snapshots of Our Political Pathology

Swinging for the Fences: Polarization and the American Civil War

Here is the second round discussion of the problem of polarization. (The first round was “Polarization as a Form of Cultural Breakdown Which can be found at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=11109.

I’ll start with a tweet I sent out about the first round: To disable a society from acting wisely and constructively, polarizing its people works really well.

Now to a discussion of


My project, “Swinging for the Fences,” aims to establish two basic ideas in a logically sound, empirically based, theoretically grounded way:

1) In the human realm, there operate deep and forces that warrant being called “spirits”—not visible to our usual eye, but powerful in their effects.

2) An important part of the human drama can meaningfully and appropriately be described as “the battle between good and evil.”

What has led me to these matters has been the happenstance that I’m living through this particular period of American history in which these phenomena seem especially clearly on display. To explore the ideas, I’ve found myself drawn to study other times and places with kindred dynamics at work. One time that captures my attention again and again is the period of American history that led up to the Civil War (say, 1848-1861). So significant does the kinship between the battle in America now and that period of intensifying sectional conflict, that this connection will be a major motif in this project.

Here, we’ll use that 1850s as a case to illustrate one of the “magnets” that have been laid out, the one described in a preliminary way in the piece, “Polarization as a Form of Cultural Breakdown.” That period in the United States demonstrates well how the process of polarization functions as a means to break down and destroy a society.

The following are quotes from an exceptionally fine history of that period, The Impending Crisis by David Potter.

“Thus in cultural and economic matters, as well as in terms of values, slavery had an effect which no other sectional factor exercised in isolating North and South from each other. As they became isolated, instead of reacting to each other as they were in actuality, each reacted to a distorted menial image of the other—the North to an image of a southern world of lascivious and sadistic slavedrivers; the South to the image of a northern world of cunning Yankee traders and of rabid abolitionists plotting slave insurrections. This process of substituting stereotypes for realities could be very damaging indeed to the spirit of union, for it caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared. It also had an effect of changing men’s attitudes toward the disagreements which are always certain to arise in politics: ordinary, resolvable disputes were converted into questions of principle, involving rigid, unnegotiable dogma. … One might say that the issue structured and polarized many random, unoriented points of conflict on which sectional interest diverged. It transformed political action from a process of accommodation to a mode of combat. Once this divisive tendency set in. sectional rivalry increased the tensions of the slavery issue and the slavery issue embittered sectional rivalries in a reciprocating process which the majority of Americans found themselves unable to check even though they deplored it.”

In future postings, we’ll examine more closely what forces were operating in America in that time to polarize the nation, transforming what was already a challenging issue for the country into an “irrepressible conflict” that gave America its worst nightmare of a bloodbath.

Let me just say now that throughout the 1850s, we see a spirit taking possession of part of the country that inflamed divisive passions until the country had fairly broken in two. Potter writes:

“Certainly the psychological ties of union were much attenuated at the end of 1859. Harpers Ferry had revealed a division between North and South so much deeper than generally suspected that a newspaper in Mobile questioned whether the American republic continued to be a single nation or whether it had become two nations appearing to be one.”

Then the election of 1860, ushering in a new president –Abraham Lincoln—elected without any electoral votes from the South (after the South had dominated the federal government most of the years since the beginning of the Republic). The splitting of the country –by secession to form a new nation out of the southern part of what had been the Union—commenced even before Lincoln took office. Potter writes:

“Ten days after the election of Lincoln, the Augusta. Georgia, Daily Constitutionalist published an editorial reflecting on what had happened to American nationalism: ‘The most inveterate and sanguine Unionist [i.e. person favoring preservation of the Union, as opposed to secession] in Georgia, if he is an observant man. must read, in the signs of the times, the hopelessness of the Union cause. and the feebleness of the Union sentiment in this Slate. The differences between North and South have been growing more marked for years, and the mutual repulsion more radical, until not a single sympathy is left between the dominant influences in each section.’”

2 thoughts on “Swinging for the Fences: Polarization and the American Civil War

    1. Andrew Bard Schmookler Post author

      There are some important differences. Among them, the issue of slavery divided the nation along regional lines, so it was possible to break the country along geographical lines that corresponded with the bitter differences on the issue. Another difference: that conflict was really ABOUT AN ISSUE, whereas the destructive force today is more just purely destructive, not having any particular agenda except to wreak damage on whatever it touches. I’m not sure about the implications of that second point, but the first one indicates that we’ll not likely have an actual civil war over it.

      Nonetheless, the damage done by this force has already been profound, and it may continue to be so long as that destructive and divisive force has enough power to disable the country from acting effectively and wisely on any of the challenges that we face as a nation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *